Internet-assisted suicides rise as legal bars obstruct rescues
A 19-year-old female college student in Seoul typed “potassium cyanide” into a search box on the portal site Naver in mid-October. In a second, she found a series of postings about suicide on the Web site’s board where users ask and answer questions.
“I want to find someone to die with,” she replied to one posting. She later told police that she felt an impulse to kill herself after reading the postings. Without her parents’ knowledge, she had dropped out of an education college, was preparing to transfer to another college and was feeling stress and guilt, police said.
According to police, she soon received messages from three online users, a woman and two men in their 20s and 30s. On Oct. 27, the four gathered at a hotel on Mount Namsan with potassium cyanide they bought through a Web site.
But she was dissuaded by her boyfriend, who came to the hotel, police said. On Oct. 28, the other three were found dead in a park on Mount Namsan by an early-morning stroller. She told police about the suicide pact the same day.
In South Korea, just over 14,000 people killed themselves last year, about 38 people each day, according to data from the National Police Agency. The number of suicides per 100,000 people in the country has gradually increased from 14 in 2000 to 26 last year, the fastest rate of increase among the 29 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The National Statistical Office data also show that suicide is the number one cause of death for people in their 20s and 30s and the second most frequent cause of death for teenagers and people in their 40s last year. Among those deaths, joint suicides arranged over the Internet through Web sites or discussion boards have also increased since the late 1990s.
Last Thursday, four people - one teenager and three in their 20s and 30s - were found unconscious after drinking poison at a motel in Busan. Last Tuesday, a 14-year-old middle school student in Busan killed himself with poison that police assumed he had bought from a Web site. According to police, a teenage girl in a group that met on the Internet died and the others have been hospitalized. In October and last month, dozens of people were reported to have attempted to kill themselves using Internet suicide pacts.
The National Police Agency does not have a distinct category to track Internet-assisted suicide pacts. But the number of joint suicides, without considering how they were arranged, has increased from 24 in 2000 to 41 in 2004, according to the National Statistical Office.
An Internet-arranged suicide was first reported in the media in 2000, and the next year, the Korea Internet Safety Commission designated suicide among a list of “forbidden words” that should not be used in the name of a Web site or an online community. But there is no restriction on using “suicide” as a keyword to search Web sites and write posts.
The Seoul Family Court’s 2002 survey of 2,800 elementary, middle and high school students nationwide said 34 percent of the respondents had visited such Web sites and 34 percent of the visitors planned to commit suicide.
“Web sites dedicated to discussing suicide have almost all been shut down. Nowadays, question and answer boards on portal sites enable suicide pacts between individuals,” said Kim Hee-ju, secretary general of the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention, a civic group.
The association found 444 harmful Web sites related to suicide from January 2005 through this October and notified the portal sites on which they appeared. About half of those cases were discussion threads in question-and-answer posts on how to commit suicide. Six Web sites and 34 Internet communities on suicide were found. Twenty-one percent had pictures or video clips featuring vivid images of a person cutting a wrist with a knife, a man hanging himself and other grisly themes.
“The images could also cause significant psychological damage to teenagers. It is a kind of fad among teenagers to look for such images and post them on their Web sites,” Mr. Kim said.
“The Internet has become part of the lives of the young generation, and many young people are more likely to depend on online communities for help with their problems than on their families or friends. They are easily caught up in a group pact,” Mr. Kim added.
Under the current criminal laws, operators of Web sites on suicide are not punished. “When there is clear evidence that a person sold poison for a suicide and offered detailed instruction for the use of the poison, the person can be indicted on charges of aiding or instigating suicide,” said Park Chan-yeop, an investigator at the Cyber Terror Response Center of the National Police Agency.
“It is very difficult to prevent suicides arranged through the Internet. For police, investigations start when people actually attempt to kill themselves,” he continued with a sigh.
Early in November, however, the cyber terror center did stop a 15-year-old middle school student from ending his life. After receiving a report from an online user on Nov. 8 about a positing at a portal site looking for a person to die with, the center got the writer’s personal information from the portal site and asked police in Cheonan, South Chungcheong province, to check the student, who later received counseling from a school advisor.
Personal information of an online user can be requested by police from portal sites only when a crime is committed. Suicide is not considered as a crime here, so police have to be creative. In the case just described, for example, they argued that the youth said he had bought poison, which would have been a violation of controlled substance laws.
“To rescue people from planned suicide attempts, it is necessary to revise the law to allow police to request personal information from portal sites or mobile phone companies about people in danger,” Mr. Kim said.
In Japan, where 91 people died through Internet-arranged suicide pacts last year, guidelines specifying how police and Internet or mobile phone companies should cooperate on suicide prevention were issued in October 2005. According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the number of cases of Internet-arranged suicide has decreased since the guidelines were introduced.
“Suicide cannot be prevented by efforts of a civic group. Comprehensive government measures are necessary and professionally trained experts should deal with the matter,” said Lee Hong-shick, chairman of the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention and a psychiatrist at Yonsei University at a meeting on Internet-arranged suicide Wednesday.
Ahn Myoung-ock, a Grand National Party legislator, submitted a bill on suicide prevention to the National Assembly in September.
The bill would require the Health Ministry to set up a committee on suicide prevention that would conduct research on demographic data on suicides and set up preventive measures for each age group. Every three years, the Heath Ministry would conduct a survey of suicide, and cooperation between police and telecommunications companies would be required under the bill.
The legislation has not moved, and the Health Ministry’s budget for suicide prevention is expected to be about 500 million won($539,000) next year, the same as this year.
by Kim Soe-jung